Negligent and inexperienced boaters are damaging fragile seagrass in the shallow Florida Bay, destroying habitat crucial to the fishing industry, a conservation advocacy group said Thursday.
The bay constitutes about a third of Everglades National Park, and the seagrass beds that feed pink shrimp, redfish and other marine life cover about 800 square miles, an area about twice the size of Los Angeles, at the bay's bottom.
Boaters misreading maps, running aground or taking shortcuts outside marked channels are cutting a matrix of scars across the beds with their propellers, according to a study by the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent organization that advocates for the National Park Service.
"If the furrow is deep enough, and the plants are torn up and the roots are exposed and the sediment covers it, it can take a decade or more to recover," said Jason Bennis, the conservation association's marine policy manager.
The damage could potentially also cut into the state's fishing revenues, Bennis said. Redfish, spotted sea trout, bonefish and black drum - fish sought by recreational anglers - feed in the seagrass beds, and more than 90 percent of the pink shrimp caught by commercial fisherman in Florida develop in the beds in the western Florida Bay, park officials said.
Boaters could benefit from better buoys marking shallow waters, said David Ray, executive vice president of Marine Industries Association of Florida.
"We need to educate boaters in waters that are shallow to watch for the signs," Ray said.
"There are very few navigational aids in areas like that."
The National Parks Conservation Association recommends that boaters be required to complete a boater safety course for the Florida Bay, and posting more signs and buoys warning about hard-to-navigate channels.